interview by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
This season, Theatricum Botanicum presents a new production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Ellen Geer, the company’s Artistic Director and director of the production, places the action in politically volatile East Jerusalem. I take a few minutes out of Geer’s busy schedule to ask about the inspiration for, and the creation of, her concept for Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers.
Over the years, Theatricum must have presented Romeo and Juliet many times in traditional as well as high concept productions. What about this interpretation speaks to today’s concerns?
Ellen Geer: Turbulent times. Our theatre’s mission is to share the classics with the next generation, and to relate them to the world today in a visual form. To me, Romeo and Juliet is about the suppression of new and innocent love by the culture, parenting, and society of [the characters’] time.
We serve over 10,000 students. By setting this great classic in a situation that relates to today, we felt the story would reach students in a deeper way — as well give them an actual [framework in which] to discuss pros and cons of “taking sides,” and of intolerance. To research, and to explore their own opinions.
Once you’d decided on the concept, what was the process of sitting down with the play and exploring Shakespeare’s characters and situations through this specific lens?
Researching the conflict in order to update any words [that needed to be changed, but still] remain true to the iambic pentameter of the poet. Choosing Israeli and Palestinians families, and selecting East Jerusalem, where both cultures live in close proximity. Beginning the conflict at an [Israeli] checkpoint. (In Shakespeare’s first scene, it is one group defaming the other and not allowing them to pass.) Working on each character — knowing them, and how best the fit would be for each role in the context chosen. [This was] done with the deepest respect for this most extraordinary playwright, who was a political man. Who wrote about humanity. Once the time and place was selected, it fit like a glove.
In the original text, the Montagues and Capulets are “two households, both alike in dignity.” They share a similar economic status, cultural background and, of course, their “ancient grudge.” Your production uses incendiary religious and cultural differences to spark the enmity between the families. What difference does that make to how the story unfolds?
To me, none… it only makes clearer what happens when a society — [or a] culture, religion, parent — takes sides and imprints their values onto the next generation, and does not allow exploration for the next generation to find their way. Old grudges, no matter what they are, or where they are, hurt the future.
Shakespeare plays are rarely performed without cuts. Beyond the usual trims for length, did you find that you had to make larger changes, like manipulating the text, or changing the order of scenes, to satisfy the concept?
Making the Nurse Yiddish allowed phrases to pop in… in meter. Palestinian phrases and Israeli phrases were used sparingly and respectfully to excite the ear to [the production’s] time and place. [References] like Mantua [were changed to] Red Sea as the vacation spot mentioned by the Nurse. Cyprus is used as escape for Romeo. (Actually, in researching, many young couples still go there to marry when parents are against it.) I added a peace prayer of Israeli and Palestinian writings at the end spoken by Capulet and Montague.
Did you bring cultural and religious references into the rehearsals to help the company understand the complexities of situation in East Jerusalem?
We have Arab and Jewish and white actors in this production. Actors research for themselves the time and place of any production. Discussions were helpful for all of us to understand the situation. What we hope is our production stimulates discussion and understanding. As it did for us in rehearsal.
Rehearsals always bring unexpected gifts as well as issues you haven’t foreseen. What surprises did you encounter during the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals?
The light of the production [was] our young lovers who were totally real as they found each other with an uncluttered love and need to share their life together. We have young actors who speak the language so beautifully. They led the story for us all. Our Juliet has been in our camp and classes since early childhood. To have her play Juliet is success for us all.
We knew going in that adults with set views on the politics of East Jerusalem would bring their “side,” into the hotbed of place. But for me, the director… adults have had their chance to think, feel, shout out, try to form the young and next generation on the Israeli/Palestinian issue. This production is for the young, so perhaps they can juggle what they deal with in their lives, and if God forbid they find themselves in such a situation as Romeo and Juliet… this will help them find a solution other than death.
We learn from others.
Shakespeare is pretty even-handed in apportioning blame. But his conflict remains fairly insular. What changes occur when you place the story on the backdrop of today’s landscape of global politics?
Again, no change. Shakespeare doesn’t take sides. West Side Story didn’t take sides. Our production doesn’t take sides, unless it is from the eye of the beholder. And we hope it will open their hearts to get into the shoes of Romeo and Juliet. This story is not about sides. It is not about blame. It is not about where and when it takes place. That is the adult mind concern. When one takes a side, they are only relating to the story through their eyes, and not Romeo and Juliets’.
NOW PLAYING: ROMEO AND JULIET at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, through October 2.